It’s been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season. The wind down means the playoffs are just around the corner.
Next week we’ll take a look at the best of the West — the conference that has won five of the last six NBA titles. This week, the East’s elite.
DETROIT: The only East team to win the title since Michael Jordan retired. The defending champs certainly have great depth, talent and balance. The strong backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton lead the Pistons in scoring. The front line features Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess. Their calling card is still defense, allowing 89.9 points per game, second best in the NBA.
Coach Larry Brown, 64, had surgery March 14 and has missed 17 games. The Pistons were 9-8 in those games and 0-4-1 against the spread during a recent run without Brown, However the news is positive on Brown’s return. Sports bettors take note: The Pistons started 20-9 "over" the total in conference games, 20-9 "under" in non-conference clashes.
MIAMI: The most serious challenge to the champs is easily the Heat, which played very tough defense last season under head coach Stan Van Gundy. The ”˜D’ is terrific again, but with a unique force in the middle in Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq and young star Dwyane Wade combine to form an impressive one-two inside-out punch. Van Gundy has also gotten several role players to do the dirty work for the good of the team instead of worrying about stats.
Miami allows 42.7 percent shooting by opponents, fourth best in the NBA. With Shaq in the middle, Miami shoots a league best 48.8 percent from the field. Shaq also has brought his free throw struggles (46 percent) East with him, which is why Miami is last in the NBA from the charity stripe (67 percent). Miami games are 9-3 "under" the total the last month.
CHICAGO: It’s been 1998 since the Bulls saw the playoffs. Chicago has a talented group of kids with Eddy Curry, Kirk Hinrich, Tyson Chandler and rookies Ben Gordon and Luol Deng. This may surprise many, but the Bulls are No. 1 defensively in the NBA allowing 42 percent shooting by opponents. Chicago is an impressive 21-13 ATS on the road and 28-19 as an underdog.
However, like many young teams, Chicago has a losing record straight up on the road. The shortage of experience and any kind of frontcourt that matches up with Miami and Detroit could hurt in the postseason. Still, the playoff view is far better than anything seen in the past seven years. Would you believe the Bulls were 200-1 to win the NBA title back in September? Only the expansion Charlotte Bobcats were bigger long shots!
WASHINGTON: The Wizards have a dynamic backcourt of Gilbert Arenas (25.5 ppg) and Larry Hughes (22 ppg). There are some weak areas, such as injuries to top rebounders Brandon Haywood and Antawn Jamison. The Wiz shoot just 43 percent from the field, fifth worst in the league and allow 103 point per game on the road.
BOSTON: It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Green. GM Danny Ainge came through with a coup, of sorts, trading Gary Payton for Antoine Walker, then getting Payton back when Atlanta released him. The addition of Walker jumpstarted a Celtics offense that went on an 11-1 SU, 7-5 ATS run. They went 6-3 "over" the total during that stretch, as well, and currently shoots 46.5 percent from the field, third best in the NBA.
The Celts are still not a strong defensive team, with a lack of rebounders up front. This finesse group could struggle in the playoffs against the top seeds. Boston is 1-5 SU, 2-3-1 ATS against Miami and Detroit, allowing 105, 113, 100, 108, 110 and 106 points in six games against the Beasts of the East. All but one of those games went "over" the total.